David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Failure To Staunch

March 28, 2015

When I first started teaching, I made a conscious effort to not do what lousy teachers had done with me as much as I made an effort to model what great teachers had done with me.  I don't even remember the names of most of these lousy teachers 30 years later.  I do remember what I hated and what I said I would never do: stand behind a lectern and deliver a lecture in a monotone; engage students by asking questions and then belittling the students when they attempted to answer them; provide subject matter in a vacuum of context.

I mention this because today Times Higher Education (T.H.E.) listed their annual "The 7 Fastest-Rising Young Universities in the World", and I can't help but think that they are focusing on the wrong institutions.  After all, if you look at the #1 fastest-rising young university, Nanyang Technical University, in Singapore, their reputation rides on the "appointment of big-name academics from overseas, with more than 30 international 'star' professors already in place."  That's all nice and dandy, but that doesn't do me, sitting in a great institution in the middle of a Michigan cornfield, much good!  (I won't even challenge the premise of the "evidence," something I have done before.)

The second fastest-rising young university, Maastricht University, in the Netherlands, attributes its success to a "pioneering spirt."  Pshaw!  Over the last couple of years, Southwestern Michigan College has done some incredibly innovative work to fix the developmental abyss for so many college students, and I don't see anyone from the T.H.E. (perhaps, Matt Johnson) coming around to interview us.

The Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology appears to be greatly boosted by "the important role that money can play in boosting university performance."  $170 million to the budget given directly by the government! That ain't happening anytime soon for an American university or college.

In fact, all 7 of these rising universities are non-American, making me think that location, location, location is all the more important than some of these other factors.  Nevertheless, none of the great things particularly help me establish SMC as one of the great colleges in this country.

On the other hand, maybe there is more to learn from "The 7 Fastest-Falling Young Universities in the World."  After all, it was only this week that it was reported that Phoenix University has lost half of its students!  Can you imagine any institution losing that many students?  A 30% drop would be traumatic enough.   How does one stem the disastrous flow of lost students when that starts happening?  Meanwhile, the Phoenix leadership team seems unflustered: "While we faced challenges in the second quarter, we believe Apollo Education Group has the right long-term strategy in place." Confidence or arrogance?  What could the T.H.E. tell us about Phoenix's fall? I have the sinking feeling it will be nothing soon.

Phoenix believes it can reverse the trend, but other colleges, clearly smaller ones, may simply accept the trend as the downward spiral. With the news this month that Sweet Briar College will close, there has been more analysis of whether failed colleges will be a trend.  MarketWatch predicts there will be, with "smaller, private colleges. . . especially those that draw on their local region in areas like the rural northeast and some of the Midwest" most likely to go under.  Tuition discounting, a way that many colleges and universities draw in students, is a crisis waiting to happen, "financially unsustainable," as noted by MarketWatch.  I feel pretty comfortable as a public college with little tuition discounting that SMC is going to be o.k.

Nevertheless, I yearn for more interesting studies about failure than about success from organizations such as we get from the Times Higher Education. This is the day for the T.H.E. to use its influence to cast the light on what goes wrong:  

What were the warning signs of a lousy institutional philosophy or curriculum?

Was their President standing behind a lectern droning on and on in a monotone, not engaging faculty, staff or students?

Was their Provost asking questions and then humiliating facutly, staff and students when they gave answers? 

Were these same students, staff and faculty being asked to work within a cultural vacuum, asked to embody values and a mission statement that were completely out of context of their reality?

The famous Seinfeld episode, "The Opposite," has George Costanza "completely ignoring every urge towards common sense and good judgment" he's ever had and becoming successful. "If every instinct you have is wrong," implores Jerry, "then the opposite would have to be right." 

Give us these case studies, the T.H.E.  Are we going to be the tuna swimming toward the current, or the salmon swimming against it?

*Here's the best clip from "The Opposite."